American troops who fought in Iraq were injured after exposure to chemical weapons abandoned by Saddam Hussein, the New York Times reported Tuesday night. The Pentagon “suppressed” the finds of the weapons, the paper said.
These were not the “weapons of mass destruction” the George W. Bush administration used to justify invading Iraq in 2003. Rather, the Times said, the troops were injured when they stumbled across old, often corroded shells and warheads procured for use in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.
The weapons were not the military threat to the United States described by the Bush administration. But the deadly sarin and mustard gas agents troops found were potent enough to cause injury, the paper reported. Unaware of the munitions’ content — which sometimes spilled on to their clothes and skin — as many as 17 soldiers were exposed, and some received haphazard, inadequate medical care.
The Times story suggests the Pentagon suppressed information about the chemical weapons because of the injuries, because it would have highlighted the massive intelligence failure surrounding the war and because the weapons were “built in close collaboration with the West.”
“The American government withheld word about its discoveries even from troops it sent into harm’s way and from military doctors,” wrote C.J. Chivers. “The government’s secrecy, victims and participants said, prevented troops in some of the war’s most dangerous jobs from receiving proper medical care and official recognition of their wounds.”
“The secrecy fit a pattern,” Chivers also wrote. “Since the outset of the war, the scale of the United States’ encounters with chemical weapons in Iraq was neither publicly shared nor widely circulated within the military. These encounters carry worrisome implications now that the Islamic State…controls much of the territory where the weapons were found.”
The Times documented its extensive report with dozens of on-the-record interviews with troops, including some who were injured, and “heavily redacted” documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
The troops describe incidents in which they picked up old warheads and shells and drove them away in vehicles, becoming aware of them only when they smelled noxious odors from the chemical agents or felt sick. Sometimes when they sought treatment, they were greeted with disbelief or indifference and sent back to duty without proper testing.
The Pentagon’s formal response, as the Times reported: “Rear Adm. John Kirby, spokesman for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, declined to address specific incidents detailed in the Times investigation, or to discuss the medical care and denial of medals for troops who were exposed.”
It quoted Kirby as saying: “The secretary believes all service members deserve the best medical and administrative support possible … He is, of course, concerned by any indication or allegation they have not received such support. His expectation is that leaders at all levels will strive to correct errors made, when and where they are made.”
The Pentagon’s press office did not immediately return a phone call from The Washington Post last night seeking comment.
The weapons were produced for use in the brutal war between Iran and Iraq that lasted from 1980 to 1988. The Iraqis used mustard gas and sarin during major offensives in early 1988. It’s long been known much of the technology and expertise that created those weapons was bought by Iraq in the West, sometimes by deception but “often with the silent acquiescence of Western governments,” as The Washington Post reported in 1990, even after the Iraqis were accused of using chemical weapons against Iran and Kurds living in Iraq.
After the U.S. invasion, according to the Times story, “American troops secretly reported roughly 5,000 chemical warheads, shells or aviation bombs.” The Times found 17 American service members and seven Iraqi police officers were exposed to nerve or mustard agents after 2003, with the actual total probably “slightly higher.”
Congress “was only partly informed, while troops and officers were instructed to be silent or give deceptive accounts of what they had found,” the Times reported. If asked, one Army major told the Times he was ordered to answer: “Nothing of significance.”